Overlooked But Unforgotten: Documentarians Refuse to Let the Figures and Events of the Age of Unrest Fade from History

Tania, aka Patty Hearst. From Robert Stone's 'Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst,' a Magnolia Pictures release. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures(Tania, aka Patty Hearst. From Robert Stone’s ‘Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst,’ a Magnolia Pictures release. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)


Shola Lynch, director of Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed , has had an ongoing discussion about the nature of remembrance with her father, a retired history professor at Columbia University.

Why does history so quickly forget so many fascinating people? she asks him. She knows the father-daughter, back-and-forth by heart: “I go, ‘He was left out of American history!’ And he says, ‘A lot of people get left out.’ I say, ‘But that’s unjust.’ And he says, ‘Relax.'”

But she hasn’t relaxed and accepted it—and she’s not alone, either. Lynch is among a growing group of documentary filmmakers making features about often-forgotten or overlooked figures and events from the turbulent 1960s and 1970s-the “backwash,” so to speak, from the simultaneous political, sociological and cultural revolutions of the period.

One person Lynch felt had been left out is Shirley Chisholm, the African-American  New York congresswoman who in 1972 improbably sought the Democratic presidential nomination. She was the first black woman to do so.

In that year, the first in which 18-year-olds could vote for president, Chisholm was one of many Democrats seeking the unenviable task of challenging President Nixon. But she also represented something more—the aspirations of women and minorities to fully participate as equals in all aspects of society. Including being President of the United States.

“I studied American history, and I knew very little about her,” says Lynch, who at the time was too young to be aware of Chisholm’s campaign. “So, as a woman and a person of color, it made me think there are all these other people who may have been left out of the American historical landscape. I thought I’d start with her while she was still alive. Often, historical documentaries tell stories about people who have already passed, so they don’t get to participate in the telling of the story.”

Lynch’s film, which Lantern Lane is preparing for a limited theatrical release before a POV broadcast on PBS early next year, reveals just how serious and thoughtful Chisholm’s campaign was.

Besides Unbought and Unbossed , there are other new documentaries about this period. One, Steve Vittoria’s One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern, even covers the same 1972 Democratic primary—as well as the Presidential election that underdog liberal Democrat candidate McGovern, an anti-Vietnam War South Dakota senator, lost in a landslide.

Others include Guerilla, Robert Stone’s look at the Symbionese Liberation Army’s (SLA) kidnapping of Patty Hearst; Negroes with Guns, about early Black Power advocate Rob Williams and his flight to Cuba; and Home of the Brave, Paola di Florio’s remembrance of Viola Liuzzo, a white civil rights worker slain in Selma, Alabama, in 1965.

These follow such previous works as the Oscar-nominated The Weather Underground (Sam Green and Bill Siegel, dirs./prods; Carrie Lozano and Marc Smolowiz, prods.); The Cockettes (Bill Weber and David Weissman, dirs./prods); Alcatraz Is Not an Island (James M. Fortier, dir.; Jon Plutte, prod.); MC5* A True Testimonial (David C. Thomas, dir./prod.; Laurel M. Legler, prod.); Festival Express (Bob Smeaton, dir.); The Same River Twice (Robb Moss, dir./prod.) and others.

For the most part, such films are looking back at the liberal/radical side of that era’s famous “generation gap,” when a youth- and minority-oriented protest culture, with its own heroes and celebrities, challenged virtually everything that older society valued. Divisions over Vietnam and civil rights, especially, often spilled onto the streets. With time, the nation made its accommodations with its various rebels and moved on. Some parts of the counterculture successfully merged with mainstream pop culture, while others were written off and faded from public consciousness.

Except, apparently, from the memories of documentary filmmakers.

In a way, these new films represent a revived “power to the people” movement, albeit backward-looking, to redress history’s forgetfulness. It’s helped by the fact that many subjects are still alive and eager to do interviews, and also by the plethora of available footage. It’s also helped by a philosophical sense of mission among the filmmakers.

“You fail a lot in pursuing success,” Lynch says. “But somehow in history we only talk about the success. I could not be interested in history until I understood the failures that lead to success. And this is from a period where there was a feeling of hope that I, as an individual, could make a change. That’s not failure.”

That’s certainly how Chisholm, herself, sees her life. Now retired, but still outspoken in the same demonstratively articulate way she was in 1972, she closes Lynch’s film by saying, “I want to be remembered as a woman who lived in the 20th Century, who was a catalyst for change.”

If Lynch’s motivation for the Chisholm film is to teach people who she was, Vittoria’s purpose in One Bright Shining Moment is to restore McGovern’s reputation. Most people still have an opinion about him; he’s derided as a loser.

“American history has used George McGovern’s campaign for the past 30 years as a punching bag for producing the biggest presidential loss,” says Vittoria, whose film will screen at this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival and then seek theatrical release. “But my message is that in fact it was one bright shining moment in American politics. He was being fair and honest with people, working on issues instead of rhetoric. He got destroyed by one of the most unsavory characters in political history.”

For Vittoria, the film also was a way to finally meet McGovern, who is now 81 and cooperated with the project along with Gary Hart, Warren Beatty and others active in the campaign. In 1972, as a teenager, Vittoria temporarily dropped out of high school to work for the McGovern campaign. Afterward, fired by political activism, he ran for the school board in West Orange, New Jersey, while still a 16-year-old student. It took a decision from a US Supreme Court justice to get him off the ballot.

Whereas Chisholm and McGovern sought change within the system, Rob Williams, the subject of Negroes with Guns, was ready to fight the system, if need be. A black activist in Monroe, North Carolina, in the 1950s, he got into trouble for advocating armed self-resistance against the Ku Klux Klan and other racist groups.

Questionably charged with kidnapping a white couple, he fled to Cuba in 1961, where he exhorted blacks via his Radio Free Dixie broadcasts to fight for power. He also wrote the book Negroes with Guns, the story of his life and a manifesto, of sorts. Returning to the US in the early 1970s after first going to China, he became a symbol for the Black Panthers and other militants but never a crucial player in the civil rights movement. He died in 1996, a mere footnote.

Sandra Dickson, who wrote and co-directed (with Churchill Roberts) the film with support from the University of Florida’s Documentary Institute, says she likes stories about “unsung heroes.” She earlier made Freedom Never Dies, about a forgotten Southern civil rights activist, Harry Moore, who was murdered by segregationists.

“He’s an incredibly important part of the civil rights movement that hasn’t gotten much attention, so people don’t know the story,” Dickson says of Williams. “Rob was representative of the way many African-Americans felt, particularly in the South. They were non-pacifist, particularly when off the protest line.”

For some filmmakers looking at contemporary America, studying the revolutionary militancy at the fringes of 1960s and 1970s protest has value. They want to root around in that era’s shadowy corners, looking for hidden keys to what troubles us today.

“In many ways, there was a wound that opened in American society then, a conflict as to what sort of direction our country would go in, what we would be about, what we would stand for,” said The Weather Underground ‘s co-director Sam Green, when interviewed by this writer for a recent Denver Post story. “That hasn’t entirely healed. It keeps bubbling up in strange ways. A lot of these movies are trying to come to terms with that. They’re trying to make more sense of it than simple histories of the ’60s and ’70s would do.”

Nothing seems wilder—or more aberrant—about the period today than the story of the California-based SLA, which assassinated an Oakland school superintendent in 1973 and then kidnapped Patty Hearst in 1974. Though tiny, it was essentially a revolutionary cell. Stone’s Guerilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst, about that event, will be released theatrically by Magnolia Pictures in November.

The film is lively and frequently even witty, incorporating images from old movies and TV series like The Adventures of Robin Hood and Zorro to attempt to show the all-American roots for the SLA’s strange ideas. Stone also shows that the group could be trenchantly biting in critiquing Big Business and Big Media, as when it issued demands on Hearst’s father, newspaper publisher Randolph Hearst, to spend his money giving away food.

And when Patty Hearst joined the SLA and started participating in bank robberies and issuing leftist communiqués of her own, the story set off the kind of hysterical journalistic circus that today seems commonplace. She eventually was arrested, and she stood trial and spent time in jail; other members were either killed in a shoot-out with Los Angeles police or are in jail now for a bank robbery that resulted in a woman’s death. “The story is epic,” Stone says of the SLA. “I certainly think it merits a feature-length tribute.”

Stone’s 1987 film Radio Bikini, about the atomic bomb testing at Bikini Atoll in 1946, was an Academy Award nominee. He subsequently directed and edited a multimedia exhibition about President John F. Kennedy for the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, among other projects. He is interested in finding contemporary meaning in historical events, and believes the SLA’s impact continues to reverberate.

“Their adventure really marked the end of what we know as the 1960s,” he says. “A whole period of upheaval came to a symbolic crashing end with the SLA. I think that’s one of the things that drew me to the story. It was a way to come to understand these crazy times we were emerging from. The SLA was probably the most extreme group politically to emerge from the time.

“One of the interesting things about the SLA is that their focus was anti-corporate,” he continues. “They were ahead of the curve, and a lot of what they said was true. That was another thing that drew me to it—you could separate the craziness from the core message, and there was some truth to it, which is probably why Patty Hearst got sucked into it.”

To Stone, we are not in a quieter time now, nostalgically looking back on the weirdness of those good old radical days of baby boomer youth. Since September 11, 2001, we are in a new, different kind of constant state of alert and fear—and there are lessons to be learned in the recent past.

“It’s always difficult when you’re in the middle of a transformative moment—as we are now—to come to grips with it and to make a film about it,” he says. “It’s a moving target. We’re in a swirl of chaos now. That’s why history is useful—to look back at things in the past where there are similarities and lessons to be learned.

“And it’s best to do that with a really good story rather than doing some kind of didactic documentary about terrorism and media,” he says. “If you’ve got a story that’s compelling and you can take people on a journey and they walk out and think about something, you’ve made a movie.”

Meanwhile, where will this documentary trend end? The better question is, What will the next one’s subject be? “Is anybody doing a film on Eugene McCarthy?” asks One Bright Shining Moment ‘s Vittoria.

A Film Recalls Anti-Vietnam War Protest within the Military

ziegerDavid Zeiger, filmmaker

His focus: soldiers who dared to speak out


LOS ANGELES — David Zeiger is eating his high-protein breakfast at a small, casually funky cafe along Sunset Boulevard near his home in the arts-oriented Silver Lake neighborhood.

Sitting in a far corner, the 56-year-old director of the new documentary “Sir! No Sir!,” which is about anti-Vietnam War protest within the military, has a commanding view of the small rooms that make up the storefront restaurant. He says it reminds him of the Oleo Strut coffeehouse in Killeen, Texas, where he was a civilian activist working with soldiers during the Vietnam War. (The film opened Friday at the Brattle Theatre and runs through Thursday .)

Named after a shock absorber for helicopters, the Oleo Strut was a meeting place and safe haven for soldiers from the nearby Fort Hood Army base to express their opinions about the war. They also could experience a bit of the rebellious counterculture then enchanting young people throughout America. On the wall were posters of Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Marilyn Monroe, David McCallum of “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” and others.

In 1971, Jane Fonda visited Oleo Strut with her touring F.T.A. revue. The initials stood alternately for “Fun, Travel, and Adventure, “Free the Army,” or another, less-than-polite directive.

“It was about the size of this restaurant,” recalls Zeiger, who looks a bit like Jerry Springer with his curly brown hair (popping up from under a porkpie hat), glasses, and a slightly creased but still-youngish face.

“And they did four shows. It was her, Donald Sutherland, Peter Boyle, [singer] Len Chandler, Country Joe McDonald. She put together this show that toured all over the world in this wild anti-war revue just for GIs.”

Today, all this sounds suspiciously like a tall tale — active-duty soldiers cheering Fonda for her opposition to the Vietnam War. There has been so much subsequent controversy about her 1972 trip to North Vietnam that it has obscured the support she once commanded.

Yet the proof is in “Sir! No Sir!” The film uses footage from a 1972 documentary called “F.T.A.” — only briefly in distribution before it was withdrawn — that shows Fonda and her troupe before excited crowds of soldiers during shows near Asian military bases. There’s a joke, for instance, about President Nixon calling for Marines to stop protesters from surging into the White House. Those protesters are the Marines, Nixon is told, and the soldiers laugh heartily.

But that’s just part of what “Sir! No Sir!” is about. It attempts to show that there was a widespread antiwar movement and a general spirit of political/cultural protest within the military during Vietnam, and not just among those fearful of being drafted. Zeiger wants nothing less than to reclaim a history he believes has been hijacked by conservative revisionists.


The film asserts that ground troops in large numbers began questioning the war after the 1968 Tet Offensive, which brought into question the United States’s ability to ever win the war . And when the United States later started to rely on the South Vietnamese to do the brunt of the fighting on the ground — a process called “Vietnamization” — many soldiers didn’t want to die for what was starting to be seen as a lost cause. Others had long objected to the war for moral reasons.

“Right around 1970, when Vietnamization became the main thing, you see open bemoaning of the total loss of ground-troop support for the war,” Zeiger says. “You see national-news reports about guys going out for `search and evade’ instead of `search and destroy’ missions, and stuff about `fragging.’ Those years saw the height of what we call the GI underground press with over 300 newspapers, riots in stockades, and almost a complete loss of black troops in terms of loyalty.

“While in official histories this is referred to as lack of morale, they always put it as caused by the troops knowing the war wasn’t popular at home, not that the troops themselves opposed the war.”

Much of Zeiger’s life has turned on the decisions this middle-class Los Angeles native made in the 1960s and 1970s. Searching for his place within that era’s tumult, he traveled Europe as a poet and songwriter, went to Cuba as part of the Venceremos Brigade, attended and dropped out of the University of California at Santa Cruz, and then joined the movement supporting and encouraging antiwar protest within the military.

“For me, it became the obvious choice because it was a working-class movement, the heart and soul of America, in the belly of the beast, where it mattered,” he says.

After the war ended and that time passed, he worked in factories in the South, went through one marriage and the death of a son, got remarried and eventually became a still photographer in Atlanta. In the 1990s, at the age of 43, he began making documentaries. (He also started a new family and today has two daughters, ages 9 and 7, as well as a 27-year-old son, Danny, from his first marriage.)

For “Sir! No Sir!” Zeiger found a variety of forgotten material from the Vietnam period. It includes, for instance, footage of San Francisco’s Presidio 27, tried for mutiny after a sit-down strike at the base stockade. It also documents an “Armed Farces Day” parade by a thousand soldiers in Killeen in 1970.

The film features new interviews with those in uniform who protested the war at the time. Some became well known back then — Donald Duncan, a member of the Green Berets who resigned from the military in protest in 1966, and Howard Levy, a dermatologist who was drafted and, after refusing to train Green Beret medics, was court-martialed and sent to prison. There also is a new interview with Fonda, who remains proud of the work she did during that era.


The existence of a widespread antiwar movement within the military isn’t unknown to Vietnam authors and researchers, even if overlooked today by the public at large.

“GI opposition to the ongoing war in Vietnam was truly unprecedented in scale,” said Christian Appy, a University of Massachusetts history professor and author of the oral history “Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered From All Sides,” in an e-mail. “It didn’t stop the war in its tracks, but along with the larger antiwar movement, the protests of soldiers and veterans surely acted as a brake on military escalations Nixon was contemplating.”

Zeiger’s film, being distributed by Amherst-based Balcony Releasing, is part of a renewed interest in Vietnam documentaries. It was also the centerpiece of the ongoing “At Home and Abroad: The Vietnam War on Film” series at Harvard Film Archive, which began June 2 and runs through Saturday. (For more information, visit harvardfilmarchive.org.) The opening film of that series, 1972’s “Winter Soldier” documentary about a 1971 Detroit conference at which Vietnam veterans recalled atrocities, was just released on DVD on May 30.

One person not in “Sir! No Sir!” is Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, who began his political career with Vietnam Veterans Against the War and in 2004 was the Democratic candidate for president.

Zeiger said he briefly considered including Kerry in the film. “Had he been involved in the actual GI movement, I would have done everything I could to get him in,” he says. “But when I was making this film and he was running for president, the signals we were getting were this was the last film John Kerry would want to be part of. And it would have ultimately been a distraction if we had.” (Kerry declined comment for this story.)

“Sir! No Sir!” is about Vietnam, not Iraq, but Zeiger says parallels can be drawn — especially as an active civilian and veteran antiwar movement develops. “That wasn’t something I was making any kind of reference to,” he says. “I’m trying to tell a story as clearly as I can about a dynamic movement. But it’s impossible to tell the story today without it being seen as a metaphor for Iraq.”